Examine Betjeman’s Treatment of Death Essay.

Examine Betjeman’s Treatment of Death Essay.


Betjeman wrote many poems of various themes of love, women, places and age but one of his most popular themes was death. When reading a conventional poem about death you expect a certain tone of sadness and a use of language that deals with the serious issue. But in the poems of Betjeman it becomes clear that he has many different views of death and how it can be dealt with, and his style ranges from the conventional, to the personal, and even as far as comic.

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In Death in Leamington Betjeman deals with the conventional view of death. The first stanza declares that ‘she died’ and the use of the words ‘lonely’, ‘silent’, ‘calm’ and the repetition of ‘alone’ explains what sort of death has occurred: the peaceful passing-away of an elderly woman as she sat all alone in her bedroom. The tone of the poem is sad and lonely, and we feel compassion for the woman because Betjeman stresses her alienation and isolation with phrases such as ‘grey decaying face’ and ‘the stucco is peeling…do you hear the plaster drop’ which describes her shabby surroundings which makes it worse for her to have died in that sort of place alone. Betjeman uses subtle phases ‘calm of a Leamington ev’ning drifted into place’ and describes her run-down surroundings to show that the poem is not just about the women’s death, but, with her, is coming the death of Leamington Spa as a place, as it is becoming shabby and old-fashioned with the style of houses being ‘Italianate arches’, ‘chintzy cheeriness’ and ‘plate glass windows’. With the soul of the women goes the soul of Leamington as it is slowly dying too.


It is a melancholy structure that has an ABCB rhyme pattern so the poem drifts along easily just like darkness has ‘drifted into the place’ where the woman had died. The structure is calm, slow and easy, mirroring the way the woman died. ‘Dead as the spoken word’, ‘unstirred’ and ‘tiptoeing’ emphasise the quiet and so we feel glad that the woman has died peacefully in her own home, but his use of light and darkness contrast, beginning with ‘light of the ev’ning star’, then the Nurse ‘covered the fire with coal’ which extinguishes the light, then she finished by ‘turning down the gas’ showed how her life has also been extinguished and the darkness symbolises death so we feel compassion for her as her death is so final.

However, in complete contrast to this poem, A Shropshire Lad deals with the issue of death and ghosts in a comical manner, which shows Betjeman’s flexibility as a poet as it is atypical of normal ghost poems and makes a serious subject humorous. The poem tells the story of Captain Webb, a famous swimmer who swam the Channel but also drowned, and here he returns as a ghost, only this ghost form is amusingly described as ‘swimming along in the old canal’ and ‘dripping along in a bathing dress’, both strange images as ghosts are not usually swimming or wearing funny items of clothing. The humorous images are emphasised by the repetition of ‘swimming along, swimming along’ and ‘dripping along, dripping along’ and because the stresses are at the beginning and end of each phrase, he creates a rhythm that almost sounds like the action of swimming or dripping which is light and comical. Each stanza ends with a rhyming couplet which gives the poem the feel of a limerick in its structure and pacey rhythm.Examine Betjeman’s Treatment of Death Essay.

Betjeman does not deal with the death of Captain Webb in the same way he dealt with the old woman’s death in the previous poem. It is not written in a sad, melancholy tone, but is light, almost jokey in tone, and the implication that the ghost was ‘paying a call to Dawley Bank on his way to his destination’ is a pleasant image of the ghost wanting to visit the people he knew before he went on to Heaven. It makes light of the fact that when you die, your body goes up to Heaven and the cheerful pleasant tone gives you a better feeling about death. Whereas Death in Leamington Spa gives the feeling that when you die then that is the end of you and everything stops, A Shropshire Lad encourages the belief in ghosts and heaven which is a totally different, more positive viewpoint used by Betjeman. Even the repetition of ‘rigid and dead, rigid and dead’ is comical and not insensitive, and the fact that ‘there wasn’t a man in Oakengates that hadn’t got hold of the tale’ meant that it was an amazing, special event for the people, and what makes it more pleasurable is that it happened in a place where ‘a man was running a mineral line’ a lass was singing a hymn’, a place full of ordinary people who would have been excited by the ghost and would brighten up their seemingly dull lives, so I think it’s a pleasant poem that would draw a smile.Examine Betjeman’s Treatment of Death Essay.

The third poem, On a Portrait of a Deaf Man, offers yet another different perspective on death, mainly because this poem is autobiographical so instantly the tone becomes personal and emotional. This poem is a sentimental, look back on a life that has ended so is a sad, reminiscent theme, but also an angry attack on God and a religious dilemma of doubt. Betjeman remembers the way his father used to be with his ‘kind old face, the egg-shaped head’ and the way he ‘looked so wise’ but uses sharp contrast to compare what he was like to how he is now with ‘maggots in his eyes’ and finger bones sticking ‘through his finger ends’ which shows how he is deeply affected by these haunting images and is a clear expression of the way Betjeman himself views death. He believes that when a person dies he can ‘only see decay’ and that the body rots in the soil. He is doubting his religion because he accuses God of letting him decay, but it proves he must still believe in God if he is addressing him, so I fell he just needs someone to express his anger and grief to, someone to blame ‘You, God, who treat him thus and thus.’Examine Betjeman’s Treatment of Death Essay.

Betjeman uses bitter irony such as the fact that his father liked the ‘smell of ploughed-up soil’ but now he is buried in it, or the ironic contrasts that he used to wear ‘loosely fitting shooting clothes’ but is not wearing ‘a closely fitting shroud’ in his coffin. This is because Betjeman vividly remembers what he was like but can also graphically picture what he must be like now under the ground, and it is painful for him. Betjeman also expresses his regrets in the way that they had trouble communicating on their ‘long silent walks’ but now there is no possibility of talking to him and telling him everything he should have said on those walks. So the poem makes us feel sympathy and pathos for Betjeman because we can identify as we will all lose a parent, and the view of death is one of detailed physical decay and hurt for the people left behind when somebody dies. There are doubts of the existence of the soul and Heaven which is in contrast with A Shropshire Lad which deals with ghosts and destinations. But I think it is understandable that this poem would be different because it is Betjeman’s personal experience so he would have been affected by the death of his own father when writing this, compared to the detached emotions when writing about a fictional death.

Betjeman offers many contrasting aspects of death and deals with these aspects by using different writing styles, tones, language and structure to suit each view on death. He can be comic with death, but also sad, and when it becomes personal, he can be detailed and writes with his emotions available for all to read. I think Betjeman treats death differently each time depending on the circumstances and shows how he is an adaptable and flexible writer that is not confined by convention and tradition.Examine Betjeman’s Treatment of Death Essay.

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